Victor Wembanyama may be the best NBA prospect since LeBron James in 2003. If that's the case, shouldn't we expect a long list of teams to tank the 2022-23 season for a chance at the 18-year-old seven-footer?
The answer may not be the obvious "YES" you might expect, even after he took the court (and the league's collective breath away) last week in Las Vegas against Scoot Henderson and the G League Ignite.
"He's unreal, man," one executive said. "The way he moves. I've watched highlights of him all summer but seeing him move in person was like, 'What the [expletive]?'"
Wembanyama, a French forward/center with the Boulogne-Levallois Metropolitans, scored 37 and 36 points in two games against the Ignite. Sources around the league, who were already smitten, were flat-out blown away. Sources around the league say Wembanyama projects to be a franchise pillar like Tim Duncan or James.
Isn't that reason enough to start tanking on Day 1? It should be, but the list of teams ready to stink it up may not be as long as it should be.
The "Locks" to Tank
Three teams already seem committed to chasing the worst records in the league. The San Antonio Spurs traded Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks. The Utah Jazz dumped Donovan Mitchell AND Rudy Gobert. The Houston Rockets are heading into the third year of their rebuild.
Each team has talented players, but the Spurs and Jazz have moved off of talented players. The Rockets have a long list of bright, young prospects but may not be appreciably better than the squad that won a league-worst 20 games last season.
The bottom three teams have a 14 percent chance of landing the top pick or an 86 percent likelihood they don't get Wenmbamyama, which isn't great. While Henderson is a very nice prospect, he's not a "let the season go to hell in October" type of prospect, at least for most NBA franchises.
On the Fence
Can any of the other 27 "compete" with those three franchises? Fourth place in the lottery gives 12.5 percent odds at the top pick. By fifth, that drops to 10.5 percent and No. 6 offers a 91 percent odds against. Losing consistently in the NBA over six months can be a miserable experience for the players, fans and team staff.
So what franchise is willing to walk that path?
"[Oklahoma City Thunder executive Sam] Presti has come this far. He's not going to stop now," a competing executive said. "The injury to Chet [Holmgren] makes it easier. He'll try to land twin towers with Wenbamyama."
The Thunder lost Holmgren (No. 2) for the season to a foot injury, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is working his way back from a sprained knee. Oklahoma City has accrued exciting young talent but may make an effort to finish about where they did last year (fourth-worst with 24 wins).
WTF Are You Doing?
A surprising number of teams do not appear to be tanking, despite not appreciably improving since a season ago.
"Although many bottom-feeding teams will be tempted to 'Wither for Wembanyama' and institutionally tank this season, such a strategy would be much more harmful than helpful for the [Orlando] Magic," Mike Bianchi, columnist for the team's paper of record, the Orlando Sentinel wrote. "Losing is the worst teaching tool possible for a team that desperately needs to learn how to win."
Sure, but how many franchises have won a championship this century without Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, James or Duncan? The answer is six, and those teams had Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal and Chauncey Billups.
The closest the Magic might have on that list is a Billups-level All-Star, and yet the team doesn't appear willing to bottom out, at least not initially. They're not the only ones.
"[Executive] Mitch [Kupchak] isn't much of a tanker. He believes you have to build slow and methodically," the executive said. "Besides, [the Charlotte Hornets] believe they're making the playoffs."
Young star LaMelo Ball spraining an ankle could help the cause. The Hornets recently lost one of their top prospects (Miles Bridges) after an alleged domestic violence charge (h/t Taylor Romine and Aya Elamroussi of CNN). But Charlotte hasn't looked to get out of veterans like Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee and Kelly Oubre Jr. Credit to the franchise on principle, but why?
The Indiana Pacers are another team hesitant to bottom out. The team's front office is pretty open about their directive.
"[Owner] Herb Simon won't let them tank," the executive said.
Indiana hasn't dealt away veterans like Myles Turner or Buddy Hield. The Hornets may lose their No. 10 play-in spot to the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards or Pistons. The Detroit Pistons don't look like they're tanking, recently adding veteran shooter Bojan Bogdanovic in a trade to further their cause.
What about the Sacramento Kings?
"Monte [McNair] needs to make the playoffs to keep his job," the executive said. "There's some talent on that roster, but Wembanyama would revitalize that franchise. They're not going to tank."
Given the new coach (Mike Brown) and the talent (De'Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, etc.), the Kings are way too good to be a bottom team. They may or may not make the playoffs, but plenty of teams are far worse.
"Once teams get a real sense of how bad they are, they'll shut down their best players, trade or buy out their veterans, and games are going to get ugly," one agent said. "Right now, everyone is 0-0."
More than a handful of teams will certainly make that push, but not until a good 20 or 30 games into the season. By then, it may be too late for a bottom-four slot in the lottery and with that likely goes the chance to land what appears to be a foundational talent in Wembanyama.